It gets fun on Tuesday night. That’s when the University of Kentucky basketball season really begins. After a absolute whomping over a vastly undermanned Morehouse squad in their final exhibition and a 50-point beat down of Marist on Friday night, the Cats welcome in some quality competition. The Kentucky Wildcats and the Kansas Jayhawks, two of the most storied programs in college basketball history, will go at it at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
This is not Bill Self’s best Kansas team, by any means, but they still are favored to win their eighth strait Big 12 regular season championship and come into the season at No. 13 in the country. They lost both of the Morris twins and the highly recruited freshman Josh Selby to the NBA Draft from last year’s Elite Eight squad. They also are dealing with the departures of two senior guards in Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar. This season the Jayhawks will be forced to replace over 65-percent of their scoring.
Their lone returning starter is senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor. The 6’3″ guard averaged 9.3 points and 4.6 assists a season ago. He has NBA talent, but has yet to live up to the hype at Kansas and a main reason for that is off the court issues. Last year he was suspended indefinitely by Self and started off this season on the bench again, as he was forced to sit out both exhibition games. For Kansas to be successful this season, the senior guard will have to put his troubles behind him and lead the Jayhawks on and off the court.
Taylor is at his best when Kansas is in transition as he is excellent at pushing the basketball and making decisions in the open floor. His struggles come in half court. He is not an excellent shooter and sometimes forces the issue when trying to get to the rim to score or create for others.
The best overall player the Jayhawks have this year is junior forward Thomas Robinson. The junior has been waiting patiently to see extended minutes and now is the time. At 6’10″, 237 pounds, Robinson is a load and will be a quick test for UK’s long and athletic, but not so thick front court. A season ago he averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds off of the bench, but when he was on the court he was very effective, especially when it came to rebounding the basketball. He pulled down 31.1% of the defensive rebounds and 18.8% of the offensive rebounds, which would have ranked second and third in the country if he played enough minutes to qualify.
Robinson had 18 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals in their opener, a 100-54 win over Towson. He is an explosive finisher and his size could give Kentucky trouble. His post moves are polished and he is becoming increasingly better at handling the basketball and playing with his face to the basket. He has also worked on his passing game and sees the floor good for a big man. When he gets the ball in the post, he has the ability to kick it out and find open shooters.
Joining Taylor in the backcourt is junior Elijah Johnson. Together, Johnson and Taylor form one of the fastest guard tandems in the country. The Jayhawks are lighting quick on the perimeter and when in transition are extremely dangerous. Like Taylor, Johnson also missed both of the Jayhawks’ exhibition games due to suspension.
Rounding out the starting five are a pair of juniors in guard Travis Relaford and center Jeff Whitney. Also, look for junior forward Kevin Young and senior guard Conner Teahan to contribute off of the bench.
The offense for Kansas is going to run through Taylor and Robinson. This is a team that will normally try to run, but when they are in half court, look for Robinson to get touches in the post or for Taylor to create off of the bounce.
Early on, I expect the Jayhawks to run simply because that is their style. But, if they realize that they can’t run with the Cats, I look for them to slow things down in an attempt to take advantage of their strength underneath. Both, Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones are long and athletic, but I’m not sure either of them have the physical strength to body up Thomas Robinson. Still, if you are Robinson you also have to always be aware of either Davis or Jones flying in from the weak side to defend your shot.
This will be a great test for the young Wildcats. A neutral floor game against a Top 15 squad is a good early barometer. You’ll learn a lot more about these Wildcats on Tuesday night.